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Life and Death on Mt. Everest:
Sherpas and Himalayan Mountaineering
Sherry B. Ortner

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Chapter 1


In May of 1996, eight people in three different parties died in a storm on Mount Everest. It was not the worst Himalayan mountaineering disaster in history, but it received enormous public attention, perhaps the most since the time in 1924 when George Leigh Mallory disappeared with another climber into the mists near the summit of Everest and never returned. It was Mallory who had said that he wanted to climb Everest "because it is there."

    The public drama of the 1996 Everest fatalities was the result of several late-twentieth-century developments. There was first of all the growth in communications technology, such that several parties on the mountain had the capacity for live communication via computer or telephone to any part of the world directly from the mountain itself. One of the macabre effects of this was that one of the climbers, Rob Hall, who was stranded high on the mountain, spoke to his pregnant wife in New Zealand several times as he lay dying. A second factor bringing the events to world attention was the rise of so-called "adventure travel" in the last decade or so, wherein relatively inexperienced individuals pay large sums of money to participate in dangerous sports that were normally the preserve of highly dedicated aficionados in the past. In the 1996 case, two of the parties that suffered fatalities were such commercially organized groups, whose clients had paid about $65,000 each to be guided by a professional to the top of Mount Everest.

    The 1996 disaster was also unusual in that no Sherpas lost their lives. Sherpas are members of an ethnic group who live in the environs of Mount Everest and some of the other highest Himalayan peaks, and who have provided climbing support for Himalayan mountaineering expeditions since the first decade of the twentieth century. They are the usually silent partners to the international mountaineers, carrying supplies, establishing routes, fixing ropes, cooking, setting up camps, sometimes saving the climbers' lives, and sometimes themselves dying in the process.

    Who were these climbers? Who were these Sherpas? What did they think they were they doing on the stunning and lethal walls of the tallest mountain on earth?

    As an anthropologist I have been studying the Sherpas since the mid-sixties. I have felt a growing urgency to write about the Sherpas' role in mountaineering, to tell the story of Himalayan mountaineering from the Sherpa point of view. This enterprise is part of this book. The Sherpas have made major contributions to Himalayan mountaineering, have made money, become famous, and often died in the course of it. But Himalayan mountaineering was originally, and is still, for the most part, defined by the international mountaineers. It is their sport, their game, the enactment of their desires.

    Thus to define the book as a history of the Sherpa role in mountaineering, or mountaineering from the Sherpa point of view, is to situate the Sherpas from the outset within the frame established by these men (and later women) and their ideas. There is an important story here, a history of ways in which, despite the mountaineers' control of the sport, the Sherpas managed to make extraordinary gains in their position over the course of the twentieth century. We will see a history of strikes on expeditions, from the earliest to the present, for better pay and equipment and—always at the same time—for more respect. In addition, Sherpas and international mountaineers have competed with and teased one another within a (would-be) shared masculinity, have entered into father-son-like relations, and have occasionally managed to become something like equals and friends. The story of Himalayan mountaineering "from the Sherpa point of view" is the story of these complex and changing relations.

    But if one part of a Sherpa-centered history of Himalayan mountaineering is the Sherpas' changing role in and relationship to the enterprise, the other must be the role of the enterprise in relation to the Sherpas' own agendas. It has become increasingly common in recent years to note that the Sherpas are not given adequate recognition, but this usually means recognition for their support and successes in mountaineering itself. Yet if this book has one refrain, it is that the Sherpas have a life off the mountain, a life with its own forms of intention, desire, and achievement, and a life with its own forms of inequality and pain as well. The other story of this book situates itself off the mountain, as it were, in the Sherpa villages of their home region of Solu-Khumbu, in their Buddhist temples and monasteries, and in their urban neighborhoods in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. Here we will see the pressures of social and economic life that sent, and continue to send, many young Sherpas into mountaineering; we will see the religious beliefs and gender assumptions that they brought with them to mountaineering, but that they also changed, over the course of the twentieth century; and we will trace the changing shape of Sherpa "identity," as the mountaineering experience connected with their lives in the local, national, and even global contexts they have inhabited.

    Sherpa life before mountaineering was different, but it was not idyllic. Solu-Khumbu was (and still is) very beautiful, but agricultural labor is hard, the terrain is rough, and there are no roads and no wheeled vehicles. There were relationships of inequality in Sherpa society; even within relatively equal relationships, there were patterns of competitiveness and conflict. For Sherpas situated in the contexts of village, and later urban, life, mountaineering provided ways of addressing these problems in their lives. One may think of mountaineering as having had an "impact" on the Sherpas, but one may also think of it, as I will do in this book, as providing ways for them to transform and remake their own society at least partly in terms of their own agendas.

    A note on terminology. Until the 1970s, the Sherpas both addressed and referred to the international mountaineers as "sahib" (usually pronounced as one syllable, "sahb"), a Hindi term meaning "boss" or "master." The fact that they stopped using it in the 1970s was one piece of the campaign for respect and recognition alluded to above. I will, however, continue to use the term throughout this book in my voice as writer, for several reasons. For one thing, it (or "memsahib" for women) is a handy one-word tag for the international mountaineers in general, when there is no necessity for breaking them down by other specific characteristics. For another, it places the sahibs in the same frame as the Sherpas, a single category of people being subjected to ethnographic scrutiny. And finally, though I do not accept the implication of superiority embodied in the term (which is of course why the Sherpas stopped using it), I do not think it is possible to avoid the (ongoing) fact of sahibs' power over the Sherpas on expeditions; my continuing, somewhat ironic, use of the term signals this continuing fact.


High-altitude mountaineering is one of the most dangerous sports on earth. The most frequent kind of death is sudden and shocking, a slip or drop off a sheer face, a fall into a crevasse, or—the biggest killer in terms of numbers—burial in an avalanche. But there is also slow death from "altitude sickness," an innocuous sounding phrase that refers to the consequences of an inadequate supply of oxygen reaching the bloodstream, producing strokes, cerebral and pulmonary edema, and other bodily breakdowns.

    It is difficult to get precise statistics on death rates in Himalayan mountaineering; a variety of numbers are bandied about. "One out of ten Himalayan climbers does not return." "The death rate on expeditions to the Everest area runs about one in eight." "For every ten climbers who enter the ice fall [on Everest], one does not emerge." "For every two climbers to reach the summit [of Everest], another has died in the attempt." Elizabeth Hawley, an extremely knowledgeable journalist who has lived in Kathmandu for many years, told a reporter in 1996, "Some 4,000 people have tried to climb Everest, 660 have succeeded, and 142 have died." This puts the ratio at about one death for every five successes. Concerning Sherpas alone, "from 1950 through the middle of 1989, 84 Sherpas died on mountaineering expeditions." Specifically with reference to Everest, "of the 115 climbers who have died on Everest, 43 have been Sherpas."

    The imprecision and incomparability of these figures—not to mention the impersonal quality of statistics in general—should not lead one to glide over them too quickly. If one looks at the question from the points of view of those actually engaged in the sport, the sense of sudden, close, and relentless death becomes almost overpowering. There is probably not a single Himalayan climber who has not lost at least one close friend—and usually many more—to a mountaineering accident, and who has not been on at least one expedition that suffered a fatal accident or other death. The great British climber Chris Bonington totaled up what he called his "catalogue of deaths": Of eight people he climbed with on one expedition, four are now dead; of ten people he climbed with on another expedition, another four are dead; and so forth to a total of fifteen out of twenty-nine people.

    Much the same can be said for the Sherpas. Of the more than thirty climbing Sherpas I interviewed about their climbing experiences, there was not a single one who had not lost at least one (and usually more) close friend, covillager, or—something that is not true of most sahibs—kinsman in a mountaineering accident, and not a single one who had never been on an expedition with a fatal accident. Indeed for some climbing Sherpas, nearly every expedition they worked for had had a fatal accident. And it is probably fair to say that there is no Sherpa at all—man, woman, or child, climber or nonclimber—who does not personally know a fellow Sherpa who was killed in mountaineering.

    In relation to this level of risk and sudden death, my own attitudes about mountaineering have changed over time. I think I began with relative neutrality on the subject, taking the idea of "adventure" and the exhilaration of success and triumph at face value. My neutrality was in part generated by the fact that my first fieldwork was located in a time and place that rendered Sherpa involvement in mountaineering almost invisible. I lived in a village in the Solu valley, and far fewer men of Solu had been involved in mountaineering work than had the men of Khumbu, which is at a higher altitude and closer to the peaks. In addition, that first fieldwork took place in 1966-68, when much of mountaineering was shut down in Nepal, because the "Great Cultural Revolution" was taking place in China, and the Chinese were extremely sensitive about border violations. For these reasons, and also I think because I fancied myself as an anthropologist getting to the "real" Sherpas behind their popular image as mountaineers, the whole question of their involvement in mountaineering hardly impinged on my consciousness, and I had no particular judgments about the enterprise. Indeed I was concerned about the economic hardship caused for the Sherpas by the shutting down of climbing at that time.

   In the interim between my first and second field trips, I saw the film The Man Who Skied Down Everest, an account of a Japanese expedition on which six Sherpas were killed. When I went back to the field in 1979, I lived in the Khumbu (higher valley) village of Khumjung, probably the single biggest source of mountaineering Sherpas. My landlord in Khumjung, as it turned out, was the sardar (foreman of the Sherpas) of the Japanese ski expedition, and I learned that he was devastated by the deaths. Most of the men who were killed were his relatives, and he never climbed again. In addition, there was a Yugoslavian Everest expedition in progress while I was there, and one of the leading high-altitude Sherpas was killed on the expedition. He was also from Khumjung, and I was able to see at first hand and with total immediacy the intensity, even the violence, of the grief that coursed through the village. I was stunned by the extravagant purposelessness of the deaths of these young men, and I became extremely hostile to mountaineering. Words like "lunacy" and "bizarre" were sprinkled through early drafts of some of the chapters that appear in this book.

    It was not just my grief for the Sherpas that led me to be appalled by mountaineering. Reading the mountaineering literature over the course of this project, I was exposed to what felt at times like a relentless chronicle of death for sahibs and Sherpas alike. I was mystified as to why anyone would voluntarily take these extraordinary risks. I came to know all the kinds of things sahibs say about this, but I could not say, for a very long time, that I felt I had come to understand them in any deep sense. The mountaineering sahibs seemed in many ways much more alien to me than the Sherpas.

    In the end I think I "got it." I have not entirely lost my critical sense about the senseless risking of lives, and I could not imagine doing it myself. But I have come to see the ways in which climbing, for all its participation in certain problematic cultural scenarios (personal glory seeking, hypermasculinity, and so forth), nonetheless also stands at a somewhat critical angle to the dominant culture. That is one of the major themes of this book.


The Himalayan range contains the highest mountains in the world. There are only fourteen mountains on the earth over 8,000 meters high, all of them in the Himalayas, with eight of them in Nepal alone. (A meter is a little over 3 feet; 8,000 meters is over 26,000 feet.) Of these, the tallest is Mount Everest, at 29,028 feet. It is worth noting at the outset how extraordinarily difficult a task it is to climb an 8,000-plus-meter peak. At high altitudes there is very little oxygen in the air, and the difficulty of completing even the smallest tasks becomes enormously magnified. As Eric Shipton wrote in his diary in 1938, "a climber on the upper part of Everest is like a sick man climbing in a dream." Thus, although the efforts to climb peaks over 8,000 meters began in earnest in the early 1920s, the first success—on Annapurna, in Nepal—was not achieved until 1950 (by the French climber Maurice Herzog). To this day, only about one-third of the expeditions that attempt peaks over 8,000 meters succeed.

    An expedition is a self-created group of people who decide to climb a mountain and then try to do it. Expeditions were once all-male, but that has changed significantly. Sahibs also used to be predominantly white and Western, but that too changed significantly starting in the sixties and seventies. But there is one respect in which mountaineering has remained relatively constant, socially speaking: by and large it has been, and continues to be, a sport of the middle class, generally but not entirely of the well-educated upper-middle class. Although there were a few highly visible upper-class individuals involved in the early years, and although there has been an increasing number of working-class (especially British) climbers since about the 1970s, nonetheless the majority of climbers have been middle to upper-middle class, and the culture of the sport has (as I will discuss) reflected that class composition.

    Launching an expedition is a major undertaking. Funds must be raised, although the modes of fund-raising have been enormously variable across different expeditions, different nationalities, and over time, and that itself is part of the story. There is usually a core group, who then consider how many more people to bring in. Individuals are invited to join or not, with all the pleasures of inclusion and the pain of exclusion. Expeditions may be enormous high-tech affairs with many members, many tons of equipment and supplies, a large number of Sherpas, and literally hundreds of porters. At the other extreme they may (increasingly) be relatively small and low-tech. All of these choices are consequential.

    And then there are questions of the social and psychological dynamics among the members of the group. Once the group gets to the mountain, differences of personality, nationality, climbing values, and many other things are enormously magnified by the close quarters, the stressful physical conditions, and the difficulty of the task. Although physical abilities, technical skills, and equipment are fundamental to success, the job of climbing the mountain involves as well an enormous component of interpersonal relations.

    Finally, from the point of view of climbers from Western and/ or "first world" nations, highest-altitude mountaineering generally takes place in distant locales (basically the Himalayas and the Andes) populated by people who are seen as importantly different in terms of any or all of the following: "race," culture, religion, degree of "modernness," and personal characteristics thought to be related to the above. Expeditions depend on these people for permits, supplies, and especially labor, and thus relations with them are as much a part of the dynamics of high-altitude mountaineering as relations within the sahib group, and the technicalities of the climb. Which brings us to the Sherpas.


Most Himalayan expeditions throughout the twentieth century have relied on people called Sherpas for general portering, skilled high-altitude portering, and all-around expedition support. Casual observers are often confused as to whether "Sherpas" are an ethnic group, a role category, or both, and their confusion is not unjustified. I will clarify this briefly here, but the question of what a Sherpa is will, like most of the other things mentioned briefly in this introduction, arise in different ways throughout the book.

    The Sherpas are indeed, first of all, an ethnic group who live in northeast Nepal, in the mountains and valleys surrounding the Everest massif. Their ancestors migrated from eastern Tibet in the sixteenth century, and they remain closely related ethnically to Tibetans. In the second half of the nineteenth century some Sherpa men began migrating (for the most part seasonally) to the Darjeeling region of India in search of economic opportunity with the British, in the form of both petty and grand enterprise, and of wage labor. Along with members of other ethnic groups, the Sherpas presented themselves for "coolie" work on road-building projects in the Darjeeling area, for exploration and surveying projects in the surrounding mountains, and for climbing expeditions as these became a distinct form of activity. The Sherpas quickly distinguished themselves: as early as 1907 climbers were marking the Sherpas as particularly well suited for the support work involved in mountain exploring and climbing.

    Exactly what such work involves has gradually changed over time. Minimally, it has always involved portering as well as what might be called domestic support—setting up the camps, fetching wood and water, cooking, serving, cleaning up, and so forth. There was always less of a notion of "guiding" than was apparently true of European Alpine guides. But as we shall see, the definition of "Sherpa work" has expanded over time, to the point where most present-day expeditions make at least some Sherpas members of the actual climbing party.

    The category of "Sherpa" too kept undergoing changes. Originally referring to members of an ethnic group who happened to be good at high-altitude portering and generalized expedition support, it eventually became both a role and a status term, meaning essentially a specialized high-altitude porter with at least some (and sometimes a lot of) climbing expertise. As a status term, it was distinguished, on the one hand, from "local porters" (i.e., low-altitude porters who might or might not be ethnic Sherpas; nowadays they are mostly Tamang people), and, on the other hand, from "members" (the climbing party itself, normally composed exclusively of sahibs). If an ethnic Sherpa, who had been functioning as a climbing "Sherpa" (i.e., a high-altitude porter), was picked to join an assault team for the summit, then in theory he became a "member" and not a "Sherpa" for these purposes.

    Although the early sahibs tried to pick their own Sherpas individually, it quickly became the practice to simply hire a good sardar and allow him to choose his own team. A Sherpa seeking expedition work, then, had to connect with a sardar, whether through kinship or other forms of personal acquaintanceship, or through bringing him gifts in the normal Sherpa mode of requesting a favor. There are several different career patterns for a mountaineering Sherpa. A young man might start as a kitchen boy or even a local porter, and hope to be hired up, after working at this level on one or two expeditions, to the "rank" of climbing Sherpa. Some young men, however, might be lucky enough to break into Sherpa work directly. After a few years as a climbing Sherpa, in turn, an ambitious young man might hope to become a sardar. But not all Sherpas become sardars, and some men simply climb as "Sherpas" for their entire careers. Indeed, some of these men say that they do not want to be sardars, that the job is too stressful. But sardars may make very good money, and many of them are able to retire relatively early.

    Some Sherpas have become mountaineering legends and heroes. Some have sacrificed their lives; others have climbed Mount Everest multiple times (at last count Ang Rita Sherpa was up to ten successes, and Apa Sherpa was up to eight); many—also very much deserving of note—have led or supported large numbers of expeditions up the mountain and down again without a fatal accident. While some of these individuals will be noted in the course of this study, this is not primarily a chronicle of individual achievements. Rather—in time-honored anthropological fashion—I try to understand what drives both sahibs and Sherpas, what they have done to and for one another, what they have brought to and taken from their encounters, and—for the Sherpas especially—what effect all this has had on their world as they define it.


Mountain climbing has recently been called "the most literary of all sports." Mountaineers tend to be relatively highly educated and articulate, and they write large numbers of articles and books, including accounts of particular expeditions (sometimes several people on the same expedition write about it) and personal memoirs. I have read literally hundreds of their works, which I have consumed with a certain amount of guilty pleasure insofar as they were rather more gripping than some of the usual research reading. I have mined this literature in depth for the sahib side of this book: for their detailed accounts of events and interpersonal dynamics on expeditions, for insights into "sahib culture," for sahib views of the Sherpas, and for a historical sense of how all of this has changed over the course of the twentieth century.

    Second, I have drawn on the by-now voluminous ethnographic literature on the Sherpas, including my own past ethnographies. I draw on these for "data" about the Sherpas; I also view them as part of the general pool of "sahib representations" about the Sherpas that need to be critically examined in much the same way as the mountaineers' writings.

    Third, for some of the earlier parts of the book, I draw heavily on two Sherpa autobiographies, by Ang Tharkay Sherpa and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa. These works have their own complexities (they were told to Western authors, sometimes through interpreters, and thus cannot be taken as unmediated self-representations of Sherpa individuals). While one could certainly take these texts apart in terms of the ways in which (for example) Sherpa "voices" have been distorted, overwritten, and so forth, I have for the most part bypassed that question in favor of a fairly straightforward use of the autobiographies to learn about these men and their times.

    And finally, of course, I draw on my own fieldwork. A few brief notes on my fieldwork practices that will be relevant for this book. I was committed from the outset of my research to learning Sherpa (a dialect of Tibetan), and my Sherpa language skills got fairly good. But I always worked with an assistant who wanted to practice his English as much as I wanted to practice my Sherpa; the outcome was some sort of working hybrid of Sherpa and English. My primary area of research for earlier projects was Sherpa religion, and most of my interviewing on religion was conducted in Sherpa, with backup from my assistants. But a good bit of the interviewing for the present project on mountaineering was done in English, as the English of many mountaineering Sherpas was at least as good as my Sherpa.

    I rarely used tape recorders as I found them to be intrusive. During formal interviews I took copious notes; on informal conversations I jotted down key items immediately afterward; in both cases I went home and wrote things up as soon as possible, in as much detail as I could remember, often questioning my assistant and whoever else had been around about their own memories of what was said or what it meant (their input in turn being, of course, more data). One effect of this practice, which the reader might find somewhat jarring, is that accounts of interviews are quoted from my field notes in the third person ("he told me he was very pleased ..."), which is how I wrote them up. I thought about converting things people said into the first person for greater immediacy, but my general approach to my field notes is that they constitute a set of fixed texts, like published works and historical documents, and I do not like to tamper with them except occasionally to clean up some grammar.

    Returning then to the construction of the present book, the field notes constitute my final main source of information. Some of them go back to my first research trip, in the Sherpas' home region of Solu-Khumbu, Nepal, in 1966-68; there were later trips to Solu-Khumbu in 1976 and 1979, and finally the interviews for this book were done in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, in 1990. Although I have already published a number of books and articles on the Sherpas based on the earlier fieldwork, I nonetheless view all of the field notes from all of the trips as having a certain independent and ongoing existence. I thus return to old field notes not only for material bearing on questions that I have not addressed before, but also as part of attempts to rethink issues that I have addressed before.

    One body of ethnographic material presented here has been almost entirely unpublished previously; namely, the material on the religious aftermath of the foundings of the monasteries. In the book High Religion I presented a cultural history of the foundings of the Sherpa Buddhist monasteries in the early twentieth century. Once the monasteries were founded, the monks embarked on a low-key but extensive campaign to upgrade Sherpa popular religion, and to bring it more into line with monastic ideals. I had originally planned to make this clean-up campaign part of the discussion in High Religion itself, but that book got too long, and in any event the postfounding events made a very different story from the story of the events that went into the foundings in the first place. Instead they form a major strand of the present work, one of the "serious games" (I will return to this phrase in a moment) that were in play for the Sherpas throughout the twentieth century, intertwining with mountaineering and with other dynamics of social transformation within the Sherpas' home community.

    As noted, my last stint of fieldwork was in 1990, when I spent a month in Kathmandu interviewing mountaineering Sherpas specifically for the purposes of this project. Although I had always spent some time on past trips visiting Sherpa friends who lived in the capital, I had never really done urban fieldwork before, and in any event Kathmandu had changed a lot since my previous trip in 1979. (I couldn't get over the ease of urban fieldwork—electricity! photocopying machines! twenty-four-hour photoprocessing!) In addition to the interviews with thirty or so climbing Sherpas and sardars, I was able to acquire a somewhat fuller sense of the urban Sherpa community, and got caught up as well on the gossip from Solu-Khumbu, much of which will appear in the later chapters of this book.


This is a history of a long-term encounter between two groups, two sets of people—one with more money and power than the other—coming together from different histories and for different reasons to accomplish a single task. The choice of focus on an encounter, rather than on a single group, immediately contextualizes this study within a certain trend in contemporary scholarship, a trend that emphasizes the intertwining and mutual production of the histories of the West and the Rest. Such work includes the study of encounters between "explorers" and native peoples in the course of early capitalist expansion; of colonial and postcolonial regimes of power and knowledge; and of global flows of people (everything from labor migration, to refugee flight, to tourism) in late modernity. Within all of these contexts, what is at issue are the ways in which power and meaning are deployed and negotiated, expressed and transformed, as people confront one another within the frameworks of differing agendas. These are not necessarily agendas of power and domination as such; often they are not. But the de facto differentials of power and resources shape even the most well-meaning encounters, and produce the ongoing friction—sometimes pleasurable, often tragic, always generative—of history.

    Studies of encounters between cultures, almost always involving asymmetries of power, share a common methodological problem: it is usually the dominant party that writes the (hi)stories of the encounter, and indeed it often continues to be (other) dominant parties who interpret those dominant texts. Faced with these materials, one appears to have only two choices: to focus on and "deconstruct" the texts for the kinds of power and social difference they embody and express, or to attempt to read through the texts for the "voices" of the weaker party, the "subaltern." Either way, in the haunting phrase of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, "the subaltern cannot speak": either the less powerful parties are not heard at all, as the writer focuses largely on the dominant representations, or the less powerful appear only as the Other, defined wholly by their oppression, their only agency being expressed through "resistance." Within this framework, then, the idea that the less powerful might have other agendas—lives that have meaning and purpose other than those defined by the relationship with the dominant party—tends to get lost.

    In the past, anthropology was the field that offered a way to hear the voices and desires of others "in their own terms." Yet the anthropological project itself has become enormously problematized. What does it mean to understand others "in their own terms"? Who is the "they" whose terms are being heard? Is not the anthropologist simply another "dominant party"? And so forth.

    These and related questions have been brought together under the notion of the "crisis of representation" in anthropology. This idea actually contained several different, though interrelated, points. At the simplest level there was a sense that the traditional genre through which anthropologists represented other cultures, the ethnography, was stylistically exhausted. At the very least, conventional ethnographies were often boring, numbing, cutting up other cultures into dry bits labeled "kinship," "economy," and "ritual," for example, and putting the bits into boxes in the name of "objective" description and "analysis." Further, being for the most part based on fieldwork at a single point in time, often with people who did not have their own written history, ethnographies were also usually ahistorical, frozen; they had no story, no narrative, no past and future.

    These points about the ethnographic genre had a darker side as well, and were subjected to a more pointed political and ethical critique. It was emphasized that the ethnographic project—originally defined as the recording and detailed study of non-Western and nonmodern cultures—was born in the age of empire in the nineteenth century, and could be seen as part of colonial projects in that era. The objectification of other cultures in the name of science was thus not merely an innocent (if dull) exercise in classification and description; it embodied the same kinds of "orientalism" (the specific form of racism embodied in Western scholarship about non-Western cultures) that generated and were further elaborated through regimes of colonization and exploitation. Moreover, the representations themselves—catalogues of groups, tribes, castes; descriptions of habits, customs, practices—were seen as having an enormous controlling power, defining and regulating populations in the name of health, order, and civilization itself.

    Many of the newer trends of contemporary anthropology have taken shape at least in part in response to these critiques. There is first of all a range of "experimental" ethnographic work that explores various modes of writing in an effort to get around numbing positivist representations and to capture more vividly the voices and the experience of those being portrayed. Much of this work is highly "literary"—ethnography as poetry, fiction, surrealist text. Responding in part to these questions, my own work has changed stylistically as well, although the shift has been in rather the opposite direction, toward realist history, true stories, exciting (hopefully) narratives. If there is a literary model behind it at all, it is probably the detective story.

    A second kind of contemporary work responding to questions of representation tends to focus on deconstructing dominant representations, considering the ways in which the categories and images of colonial authorities, state apparatuses, mass media, anthropologists, and so on, have "constructed" other peoples, cultures, and places. This "constructing" may be examined either in the relatively weak sense of exposing the orientalism and/or racism of the representations, or in the stronger sense of arguing that the dominant representations (and practices) have literally remade others in keeping with dominant projects.

    Such work is important, but it raises new problems. Too much of a focus on dominant representations often comes to operate as an evasion of actual ethnographic writing. Because of the various critiques of ethnography—positivism, objectivism, colonial complicity—there may be an abandonment of ethnography as such, the abandonment of the attempt to understand the point of view of those not usually heard from, especially the distant and the weak, but also occasionally the very powerful as well (who are "not heard from" for other kinds of reasons). Yet it is this profound attentiveness to other perspectives that has always redeemed the classic ethnographic project, whatever its other faults; it is this that continues to make ethnography as an enterprise desirable to other disciplines, even as anthropologists engage in important critiques of the concept.

    The challenge for the present project is to embrace both kinds of work within a single text, to recognize the power of the sahibs' representations in defining the practices of mountaineering, including the role of the Sherpas, but at the same time to see the Sherpas' role in mountaineering in a relatively classic ethnographic way—as emerging at least in part from their own perspectives, their own community of socal relations, their own contexts of life. To define the project in this way is to explore, rather than to presume, the many forms of relationship that have obtained over time between sahibs, Sherpas, and their respective understandings of the enterprise. In some cases it is clear that sahib representations and practices over the course of nearly a century have had a large impact on the Sherpas. In other cases it is clear that Sherpas have both evaded and "resisted" sahib constructions of them and of the enterprise, and have reshaped both mountaineering and their own identity in ways that grew more from their own concerns than from the sahibs'. Most of the time all of these things are going on simultaneously.

    It is important to insist on keeping the two kinds of work together, and in tension with one another. Too much emphasis on the defining and constructing power of dominant representations—anything from state propaganda, to advertising, to mass media, to informal discourses (like that of mountaineering sahibs)—creates a picture of a world in which dominant parties' views have the capacity to reshape the world entirely in their image. On the other hand, too much insistence on the power of the weaker party to evade, resist, or otherwise stand apart from dominant discourses and practices produces an equally unreal pricture of the workings of social life, given ongoing asymmetries of power and resources.

    The opposition between these two perspectives has been variously labeled: "cultural studies" versus "ethnography"; "constructionism" versus "resistance" and "agency"; "postmodernism" versus a committment to the "real"; and there are no doubt others. My interest, however, is not in the dichotomy as such but in forging a practice of writing and a kind of text (like this book) in which these two processes are recognizably at work at the same time, but in ways that are not entirely predictable in advance. With these points in mind, then, let us return to the history of encounters between Sherpas and sahibs in Himalayan mountaineering. How shall we understand these encounters? What can they tell us about sahibs, about Sherpas, and about the particular history that unfolded for them jointly? Let me here make a preliminary sorting of what is involved in the enterprise.


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File created: 8/7/2007

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